U.S. District Court Judge James A. Parker seemed to be leaning last week toward granting Wen Ho Lee bail under some very restrictive conditions--until FBI Special Agent Robert A. Messemer filled the courtroom with intrigue.
Here was a man who knew his way around the witness stand. Messemer looked directly at Parker when he spoke. He claimed expertise in the spooky world of Chinese intelligence.
And he basically left Judge Parker no room to fashion any sort of home detention for the former physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee faces 59 felony charges for downloading 806 megabytes of nuclear secrets from the lab's secure network and transferring most of the data to seven missing computer tapes.
Even an innocuous phrase by Lee, Messemer testified, could be a signal to an accomplice to pass the tapes on to hostile foreign spies. Messemer's now famous example: " 'Uncle Wen says hello.' "
What's more, Messemer told the judge, the risks of that happening are greater than ever because foreign spies now know the tapes exist and are likely to try to come and get them from Lee.
Mark Holscher, Lee's attorney, called Messemer's claims "ludicrous" and said no one could believe Lee would attempt to commit espionage in the face of round-the-clock surveillance by the FBI.
But Parker denied Lee bail pending trial.
Paul D. Moore, the FBI's former chief Chinese counterintelligence analyst, doubts that China's Ministry of State Security would have flooded Lee's neighborhood with spies and says, if anything, the threat of Chinese espionage has been diminished, not heightened, by Lee's indictment.
But that, Moore said yesterday, is because the government, hamstrung for years by the difficulty involved in prosecuting people for espionage, has decided to make the mishandling of classified information nearly as serious an offense--in Lee's case and, presumably, others to come.
"There has been a paradigm shift," Moore said. "The government has decided it is going to find new ways to stop espionage."
THE SELECT AGENDA: The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has put together quite an agenda for the next two or three months. The committee has hired Paul Redmond, the CIA's former head of counterintelligence, to help draft a report, due out by mid-February, on security and counterintelligence failures at the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons laboratories.
The panel is also promising hearings on security failures at the State Department, highlighted by the recent disclosure that a Russian spy, Stanislav Borisovich Gusev, was caught skulking around headquarters so he could monitor a bug implanted in the molding of a seventh-floor conference room.
Even before the sun set on Gusev's spy career in Washington, the committee was so upset by a State Department inspector general's report on lax security that it sequestered funds this fiscal year from State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research until a report details how the holes in security have been plugged.
If all that weren't enough, the panel, chaired by Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), is scheduled to hold yet another round of closed-door hearings on North Korea and meet with Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, to assess his efforts at investing in new signals intelligence technology.
EYE ON NORTH KOREA: The first unclassified satellite images of the Taepo-Dong missile launch complex in North Korea made their way into the public domain last night when John Copple, chief executive of Space Imaging, appeared on CNN's "World Today."
Copple's company provided the network with a disk that also contained the first commercially available, high-resolution satellite imagery of the devastated Chechen capital of Grozny--imagery heretofore only available from supersecret U.S. spy satellites.
Vernon Loeb's e-mail address is email@example.com